Considering the Counterculture

Robert Neubecker

Photo: Sudsy Tschiderer

Princeton recently held a conference on the Counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s, and PAW asked Raymond Arsenault ’69 — a conference participant who was around for the real thing — to share his reflections on the gathering. Arsenault is the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida.

In the popular lore of the 1960s and 1970s, the “Counterculture” was everything, and it was nothing. Like an ethereal cloud it drifted in sometime around 1967, probably during Haight-Ashbury’s Summer of Love, drenching the cultural landscape with a hailstorm of acid trips, hippie communes, and free love, with a downdraft of Eastern mysticism thrown in. And then —mercifully, for those who longed for a return to the security of order and tradition — it all just floated away during the cultural drought of the Reagan years. Or so it seemed.

Of course, for scholars who study the Counterculture as a social and political phenomenon, and for those who came of age as I did during this tumultuous period, the calculus of change was never that simple. Here, as in virtually every aspect of cultural history, the basic questions of definition, causality, and timing are always challenging and sometimes confounding. What exactly was the Counterculture? Was it anything beyond a popular fixation with sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll? Where did it come from, and why did it emerge when it did? What was the Counterculture’s relationship with radical New Left politics? With feminism, environmentalism, and the African American freedom struggle? With New Age religion? With the movement to end the war in Vietnam?

What exactly was the Counterculture? Was it anything beyond a popular fixation with sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll?

These and many other questions were on full display at a Princeton conference on countercultural history Sept. 27–28. Organized by the Program in American Studies, the conference brought together more than two dozen scholars from a variety of disciplines and a number of American universities. All were specialists in the study of the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, but otherwise there was diversity all around. The participants were as eclectic as the subjects they were discussing, ranging from professors of architecture and theater arts to a Black Lives Matter activist, a 22-year-old 2019 Princeton graduate studying women’s health reforms since the 1960s, and Harvard Law School’s venerable critical race-theory sage Mark Tushnet.


In six 90-minute sessions titled “In Search of a Countercultural Moment,” “An Economy of Tools and Knowledge,” “Movements and Alliances,” “Scarcity and Abundance,” “Expertise and Radical Cultures,” and “Anxiety and Spirituality,” the presenters left no stone (or stoner!) unturned. Countercultural topics up for discussion included Stewart Brand and The Whole Earth Catalog; San Francisco’s Diggers, an influential band of anarchist street performers; “New Wave” food cooperatives; architects involved in the Community Design movement; the Boston Women’s Health Collective’s production of Our Bodies, Ourselves; the New Age artist Carlos Villa; the British playwright Tom Stoppard’s historical drama Rock ’n’ Roll; internationalism, World Federalism, and the planetary citizens movement; Martin Luther King Jr.’s reliance on Gandhi-inspired nonviolent direct action and his search for the “beloved community”; and the early experiments in globalized media known as the “Satellites of Love.”

The keynote speaker was the longtime democratic and environmental activist Frances Moore Lappé, the author of the 1971 classic Diet for a Small Planet. Fittingly, the first day of the conference concluded with a dinner featuring vegetarian and organic recipes from Lappé’s seminal book. The intellectual feast that stretched across two days was no less nourishing, as the exchanges among paper-givers, commentators, and members of the audience provided plenty of food for thought.

In keeping with the spirit of the Counterculture, the tone of the conference was as informal as it was informative. One of the distinguished Princeton professors presiding over the gathering wore open-toed sandals throughout, and a young scholar sported a bright blue bandana as he held forth on the Diggers of San Francisco. No one would have been surprised to see a tie-dyed T-shirt or two. The whole scene was open and freewheeling, and even a bit groovy at times.

In discussion that was both broad and deep, the conference undoubtedly raised more questions than answers. Yet out of the mix of scholarly research and personal reflections came a tentative synthesis of ideas about the character and meaning of the Counterculture. As the conference drew to a close, nearly everyone seemed to agree that the traditional separation of culture and politics is misleading, and that the “texts” of the Counterculture can only be understood when placed in a historical context that goes beyond the narrow confines of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Adopting the notion of a “long counterculture” that stretches back to earlier decades, and perhaps even to prior centuries, several participants stressed the importance of undertaking additional research on the roots of the post-1965 cultural flowering — and on the considerable legacy that followed.

One promising but largely unexplored topic of local interest is the impact of the Counterculture on Princeton. When I entered the University in September 1965, there were few hints of impending change. Complacency and cultural conservatism dominated the campus, and the only controversy that seemed to stir the student body was the harassment of an entering freshman sporting a longish Beatles-style haircut. That several fellow students took it upon themselves to restore cultural homogeneity by threatening to shave his head — and that more than a few others applauded this proposed intervention — speaks volumes about the state of mind on campus in 1965.

Caught on the cusp between the Age of Eisenhower and the Age of Aquarius, I could never quite embrace the full range of cultural freedom that others of my generation enjoyed.

Fortunately, by the following spring there were signs of a new attitude toward cultural and political dissent. When President Lyndon B. Johnson visited the campus to dedicate the new Minoru Yamasaki-designed Woodrow Wilson School building, a dozen faculty members, including the future Librarian of Congress James H. Billington ’50, marched in protest of his escalation of the war in Vietnam.

During the next two years, expressions of antiwar sentiment became more common on campus, fostered in part by an increasingly active local chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The creation of a campus underground newspaper, Prism, distributed to 35 New Jersey high schools and colleges, heightened the profile of radical students, as did ongoing protests against ROTC, Dow Chemical recruiters, and the Institute for Defense Analyses.

Then, long-haired and bearded students were no longer an object of curiosity, and among some young Princetonians tweeds and loafers had given way to denim, leather jackets, and sandals. The campus soundtrack had shifted from Elvis and the Beach Boys to Joplin and Jefferson Airplane, as acts of dissent and countercultural expression now punctuated student life. At one point, a mass, coed “sleep-in” designed to challenge Princeton’s in loco parentis dormitory policies brought the student body’s ongoing sexual revolution out into the open.

Civil rights were also becoming an increasingly important issue on campus as the number of black students rose with each succeeding class (there were 16 black students in my class, which eclipsed the total number of black undergraduates —15 — in the entire prior history of the University). By 1968, the Association of Black Collegians (ABC) was involved in a number of progressive initiatives, from a campaign to force Princeton to divest its South African investments, to the Trenton Action Project aimed at helping inner-city youth. Stokely Carmichael and Muhammad Ali delivered memorable campus lectures, and the ABC’s brief takeover of the New South administration building in March 1969 signaled that the campus had become contested ground in a widening struggle for social and economic justice.

Looking back on these years a half-century later, it seems clear that my personal experiences with the Counterculture as an undergraduate were highly selective and idiosyncratic. Caught on the cusp between the Age of Eisenhower and the Age of Aquarius, I could never quite embrace the full range of cultural freedom that others of my generation enjoyed — experimentation with drugs, communal living, sporting shoulder-length hair, or hitchhiking to the West Coast. Other than eloping with my high school girlfriend at the tender age of 19 during the summer between my sophomore and junior years, my countercultural rebellion was strictly political. As an undergraduate research assistant for Sheldon Hackney, a young Southern history and civil-rights scholar from Birmingham with a close family connection to Rosa Parks, I was thrust into a world of courageous black and white activists previously unknown to me.

This Princeton experience initiated a passionate identification with the movement culture of nonviolent direct action — the topic of my paper at the conference — launching my career as a scholar and civil-rights advocate and altering my life beyond recognition. This is my personal Counterculture story, one of millions left over from a tumultuous time of reinvention and renewal.